With Gov. Scott Walker signing the controversial mining bill into law Monday, the race now begins to see what the law produces first — a legal challenge or much-promised jobs.
“I find it amazing that they are signing a bill (into law) and telling the workers of Wisconsin, who need jobs, that the jobs are just around the corner,” says Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who chaired last year’s Senate Select Mining Committee and authored an alternative to the Republican bill. “But the people who understand the mining industry know the jobs are years away.”
With a fully functioning mine is still years away at best, environmental and conservation groups are strategizing on how best to stop the mine’s construction on a legal front, now that they’ve lost the battle to stop the law in the Legislature.
“Filing a suit sure seems likely now,” says Dave Blouin, the mining committee chair for the Sierra Club’s Madison-based John Muir Chapter. “On conceptual grounds, a constitutional challenge based on the law violating the public trust doctrine seems entirely possible. But we are still assessing what this law does.”
The public trust doctrine states that the state’s navigable waters, including rivers, streams, lakes and even wetlands, must be protected for the public good.
Gogebic Taconite has a $20,000-a-year lease option on 3,300 acres in the Penokee Range in Ashland and Iron counties and hopes to build a $1.5 billion open-pit iron ore mine. Blouin and others say the mine would harm the area’s pristine environment.
Republicans had long claimed the new mining law, which streamlines the permitting process, would not adversely impact the environment, but Sen. Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst, the law’s main author, admitted otherwise in a recent interview.
“In this case, the challenge would come over whether one company should be able to take those resources forever,” Blouin says. “The law now allows them to fill in waterways for commerce. That doesn’t benefit the rest of the state.”
Amber Meyer Smith, Clean Wisconsin’s chief lobbyist, says the group, which is dedicated to the protection and preservation of the state’s air and water, is “exploring its legal options” as well.
Part of that process involves determining whether it will be more effective to wait to file suit once a mining permit has been applied for or to move ahead and challenge the law before that point.
“We want to determine our best chance for impacting the process and we don’t know the answer to when that is yet,” Smith says.
Mike Wiggins Jr., the chairman of the Bad River tribe, has repeatedly expressed strong opposition and threatened legal action if the mining bill became law.
If built, the mine would be located upstream from his Ojibwe tribe's reservation. The tribe believes the mine would contaminate waters that flow into the area’s wild rice beds, in addition to harming nearby trout streams.
At a Capitol news conference Thursday, Wiggins said his tribe would use lawsuits, regulatory authority delegated to it by federal officials, and grass-roots resistance to fight the mine.
“We stand ready to fight and resist this effort to the bitter end, until the mining company leaves,” Wiggins said, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.
Wiggins did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.
Despite the streamlined process in the new bill, Gogebic Taconite will not be rushing to apply for a permit to mine the site.
Ann Coakley, director of the waste and materials management program at the state Department of Natural Resources, says Gogebic officials have told the department they will begin to do exploration work and take samples from the site this spring or summer.
The company also would need to put in a network of underground water monitoring wells in order to collect baseline wetland and surface water data. The information would be used to complete the environmental impact statement before constructing the mine, she says.
Pinning down an exact timeframe for this process is difficult to do. “They are in the driver’s seat,” Coakley says. “And there are a lot of what-ifs.”
Coakley says the DNR now must be notified at least 12 months before a company intends to apply for a mining permit, a change under the new law. This announcement, of sorts, is known as the pre-application phase and allows DNR staff and the mining company to work together on the permitting process, she says.
“We won’t likely see a permit application for at least two years,” Coakley says.
She added: “The big take-home message is that it is difficult to predict because it depends on the specific mine and the potential environmental impacts.”
The state and Gogebic officials have projected the mine itself will create 700 jobs during the life of its operation and some 3,000 jobs statewide for mining-related industries.
Gov. Walker ran on a campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs during his first term in office that ends in 2014. Democrats and others claim Republicans pushed ahead with the mining bill — despite the fact that actual jobs are years away — simply to aid the governor in a campaign promise.
The state is falling far short of meeting Walker’s job-creation mark and ranks near the bottom in job growth in comparison to other states, according to a recent Cap Times article.
The Sierra Club’s Blouin says mine opponents tried hard to appeal to moderate Republicans, especially in the Senate, and were “saddened” they were unable to swing a few votes. Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center was the only Republican to vote against the bill.
“Republicans felt pressured to make progress on the governor’s agenda to create jobs,” Blouin says. “They’ve backed themselves into a corner by making unrealistic promises on job creation associated with this mine.”